Although I’ve been on countless boats and ferries, I had only spent one night on board an overnight ferry before. And even that was a long time ago. But when I came across a sailing trip around the Zanzibar archipelago, a wave of wonder and excitement rushed through me. Rami didn’t need much convincing either since we decided that our African travels will pretty much be full of new experiences. Living on a boat for seven days seemed to fit right in with camping in the wilderness for the first time and summiting the highest mountain on the African continent.
Yet when a dinghy came to shore to pick up our backpacks and take them to the boat, I was shaking in my flip flops and making stupid jokes to mask my nerves. As we climbed into the dinghy and headed for the boat, I couldn’t help but think, “What did we sign up for?!”
It wasn’t until we stepped on board our new home for the week that I realized how truly unique and possibly even luxurious this adventure will be. We were on board a 56-foot yacht named Julia. We had a private cabin with our own bathroom, skylights that opened up for fresh air, and even a narrow closet. The space at the back of the yacht had two large tables, plenty of sitting space and a kitchen where a dedicated chef would prepare all of our meals. At the front of the boat, three mattresses were secured to the nets below to allow for sunbathing or relaxing. There was also a lot of deck space, which was perfect for sitting down and enjoying the scenery. Best of all, there was only one more person who signed up for this trip – a young lady from Switzerland named Bini.
The crew consisted of the skipper Caio, the chef David, and two guys – Hamisi and Omari – who assisted with everything related to the boat. In total we were three tourists being taken care of by four crew members on board a spacious yacht, setting sail for some of the more remote and secluded places in the Indian Ocean.
For the next seven days, we were immersed in pure nature of the Zanzibar archipelago. Technically “Zanzibar” refers to just two large islands – Unguja (home to the historic Stone Town) and Pemba. But there are over forty smaller islands scattered around Zanzibar that are often referred to as “Spice Islands” due to their production of various spices. We got a taste for all of these spices as David whipped up meal after meal full of freshest ingredients, flavoured with cloves, coriander, fennel seeds, curry powder and others. We couldn’t help but let out a “Wow” every time platters of food appeared before us.
We got another taste of luxury on our very first night as we docked near Mnemba Island, home to a very exclusive resort. At USD $1,700 per person per night, this private island resort would charge an outsider USD $300 just for stepping foot on its beach! Luckily the waters around the island are part of a conservation area, and as such we could dock there without paying the hefty fee. But the real perk was in the morning as we were the very first ones to go snorkelling and admire the coral reefs with their abundant marine life before all of the tour boats arrived from Unguja.
Besides snorkelling near Mnemba and later in the pristine waters of Mesali Island, we got a chance to go kayaking in the mangroves of Pemba Island. Rami and I are not new to kayaking by any means, but navigating among the tree roots sticking out of the water and branches about to poke you in the face turned out to be more challenging than we expected. After a few collisions with the trees, we finally got the hang of it, paddling slowly and gently in the calm waters of the mangroves. We were doing quite well, gliding in the narrow channel between the trees and marvelling at the fact that we were the only ones there. Then before I knew what was happening, I found myself in the water. The kayak had flipped!
For a second I panicked, but then I realized that the water was shallow and I could touch the bottom with my feet. However, I also realized that I better not do that since there were many tree roots growing out of the sandy bottom. It turns out that Rami had leaned too far to one side of the kayak while trying to dodge a tree branch heading for his eye. This caused the entire kayak to flip and both of us ended up in the water. With the help from one of our crew members, we managed to get back onto the kayak and continue gliding through the sleepy mangroves as if nothing had happened.
The beauty about sailing is that one can reach places of pure wilderness, untouchable and unreachable by roads and the civilized world. As early as on our very first day sailing to Mnemba Island we saw dolphins jumping out of the water right in front of our yacht. We didn’t have to sail very far, and yet here they were – right in front of us but undiscovered by the people on the shore.
One morning, I was standing in the back of the boat, looking out at the horizon to keep myself from feeling seasick as we sailed. The water was wavy and the sun was blinding my eyes. At first I thought I saw a mirage. After looking at the waves for so long, it was bound that my eyes were playing tricks on me. But then I saw it again – a shiny grey mass rising out of the waves and glistening in the sun just for a few seconds. I knew instantly that this was not a dolphin. It was something much larger and much heavier, disappearing into the water for long stretches of time. In fact, after a few glimpses of this creature, I couldn’t spot it anymore for maybe another five minutes. But then it came back, rising out of the water higher than ever!
“Whales!” one of the crew members exclaimed. “A mama and a baby,” clarified our skipper.
I had never seen whales before. It was an incredible feeling. Although we thought we saw some tail splashing far in the distance earlier in the week, this was a much closer encounter. The whales swam parallel to our boat for a while, disappearing back into the water for long stretches of time, and then reappearing with their backs just above the water. We all gathered on the deck and stared out into the open ocean, long after the whales were out of sight. This was a true wilderness encounter.
But it didn’t stop there. I woke up one morning with cheers and laughter roaring from the back of the boat. Having woken up early, Rami stumbled back into our cabin and proudly proclaimed that they have caught two tuna fish and it was Caio’s birthday in addition to his own! Despite having me swear not to tell anyone that it was his birthday, Rami couldn’t keep his secret when he found out that Caio’s birthday was literally that same day. And what a coincidence it was that Mother Nature gifted these men two heavy tuna fish that were caught at the same time! This was probably the freshest tuna I have ever eaten in my life and a testament to the wonder of this adventure. Every night for the rest of the week we ate pieces of the birthday cake and doubled-over from laughter as we watched Omari and Hamisi dance to the “Happy Birthday” song by the Tanzanian singer Diamond Platnumz.
In fact, a very special cultural experience was a visit to the village where Omari and Hamisi live. Situated on Pemba Island, this tiny village was full of kids that swarmed us as soon as we got out of the dinghy. “Jambo! Jambo!” they exclaimed, waving their hands and following us wherever we went. The girls really took a liking to my scarf that I wore around my legs to cover my knees as a sign of respect to this Muslim society. They touched my scarf and giggled, turning away as soon as I made eye contact.
Omari and Hamisi took turns showing us their houses. At each one, we were welcomed to sit on the carpets laid out on the floor while numerous relatives and swarms of kids surrounded us and watched us attentively. Each time we were presented with hot sweet tea, made from ginger, cinnamon and cardamom. As we sat cross-legged on the floor, we were invited to share a meal with their closest relatives. From freshly-baked bread, to grilled fish, to boiled sweet potatoes and chapati pancakes, we got a true taste of the food that locals in this village eat every day. The ingredients came from their home-grown gardens that we saw with our very own eyes while walking around the village.
The children of the village were shy at the beginning, studying us with curiosity when they thought we weren’t looking. But when I took out my phone to take pictures, I found myself surrounded by smiling faces eager to take a selfie. Some of the older kids started practicing their English abilities, asking us questions like “What is the name of your mother?” and “Where are you from?” Sadly, it became clear very quickly that they did not understand our answers. It turned out that our Swahili was at times more advanced than their English.
The visit to this local village showed a juxtaposition of the old and the new. The villagers lived in crudely-built stone houses and slept on the floor. Yet they had plenty of home-grown food and managed to cook, wash, clean and even educate their children. In the absence of electricity, the villagers used their cell phones for light when it got dark, and charged their phones with solar power during the day. It appeared that they lived in a remote area, yet just a half-hour drive away was a forest reserve where researchers studied the flora and fauna of the Pemba Island. There is no doubt that this village was remote and secluded, but its way of life was far from primitive.
Towards the end of our sailing adventure, it was time to head back to the northern part of Zanzibar called Nungwi. We got so used to spending nights in the serenity of the empty waters without any boats in sight, that when we finally got to Nungwi, we were shocked by jet-skis zooming by and music drifting from the bars on the shore.
The next morning we all sat quietly on the deck, staring out into the distance, unable and unwilling to disturb the last few moments of silence we came to appreciate over the past week living on the boat.
When it came time to say our goodbyes to the crew, we were all sad that this journey was over. As I climbed into the dinghy for the last time like a pro, I gave Julia one last look-over. This is what our travels are all about – new experiences that shake us outside of our comfort zone and show us that even the more remote places in this world can be accessible.